Review Summary: Doing the best I can (with what I am)
Slate published a review earlier today asking where is all the protest music in Sufjan’s new record, and they’re right to ask the question, there isn’t much. The Ascension was described as many things before it was released, bossy and bitchy angry dance music, a political protest record in judgment of the world, and a grand celebration of big, bold 80s pop music. But, really, it isn’t quite at all any of those things. Sure, in the last two tracks, Sufjan disavows his belief of evangelical Christianity, America, and God, and that’s undoubtedly pretty edgy for the man who wears butterfly wings on the live stage. Still, the 13 songs before are Sufjan par-the-course, just a little less confessional and a little more jaded.
Futile Devices. Now That I’m Older. All For Myself. There’s a fair bit of discussion about how this record differentiates itself from the Age of Adz, Sufjan’s previous electronic explosion 10 years ago, and those three songs are the answer. The Age of Adz was just as over-the-top and mind-numbingly busy as this record is, but it constantly downshifted the tempo into sparser ballads, giving the listener time to breathe and regroup. There’s no such rope tossed into the waters here. If The Ascension is anything, it is a meticulously crafted assault on the senses, and you can’t help but feel it is in part meant to wear you down and exhaust you. Where’s the protest music in Sufjan’s new record? The music is the protest. A sugary sweet 80-minute long anxiety attack meant to emulate all the contradictory and absurd realities of living in 21st century America.
There’s an incredibly flawed narrative of Sufjan Steven starting out as a timid banjo player who eventually went off the deep end, diving headfirst into eccentric maximalism. But, careful consideration of Sufan’s beginnings make it incredibly clear that the man has always been a weirdo, and that eccentricity has been the key to Sufjan’s success at every moment. It’s not the bug, it’s the feature, and the real story of Sufjan’s career is of a man who tamed himself to appeal to the masses and slowly started to add back in the discordant pieces of his identity to his craft. Of meticulously balancing his fan’s need for accessibility with his need for just being ***ing out there. I think it became evident, though, that something had gone haywire in the process when Sufjan released Video Game and Sugar as singles.
Video Game and Sugar remain the most notable and even exciting tracks on the record for me, not because they’re all that good (well, okay, Sugar definitely is) but because they’re the newest and most bold aspect to the Ascension. If only for the sole factor that they’re not innovative at all. They’re kind of just simple, kind of dumb pop songs. Effective and confident, in the fashion decades of songwriting experience will allow, but simple pop songs. As the rest of this record continues to be just as innovative as the rest of Sufjan’s discography, it’s incredibly purposeful and telling that it’s the cotton candy, junk food pop tracks that Sufjan chose to lead into the release with.
Why even record them?
I think America is the central track to this record in many ways, a song that serves as a meditation on the dissolution and destruction of grand comforting concepts and the instability that experience creates. That’s a crucially important theme when thinking about the intention of this record. The placement of our two dumb pop songs, Video Game and Sugar, mirror each other, Video Game two tracks from the beginning, and Sugar two tracks from the end. In every way, they are meant to be compared and contrasted, the two proverbial obnoxious sore thumbs that insist on poking the listener in the eye.
And sure enough, the opening of this record is more or less consistent with the promised album. The opening track is a little more Sufjan-core and ambitious, but it’s pretty accessible. The second track is a throwback to the classic Sufjan ballad. And ta-da!, here’s Video Game, an infectious little pop song. Granted, Lamentations is a wrench in the gears. Still, it’s a pretty beautiful, breezy, more straightforward record, just as the marketing would lead you to believe until you hit Die Happy where everything just seemed to plummet into something far more anxious, dark, complex, and inverted.
Sufjan has long been a disciple of Steven Reich, as contradictory as his maximalist tendencies appear to be, and perhaps the ultimate ode Sufjan gives him time after time again is in the embracing of the mantra. Nowhere has this been more effective than in Die Happy, where the repeating of “I Want To Die Happy” over and over again is the kind of jarring left turn that makes the dark underbelly of this record the very surface. Ativan follows, a literal panic attack with an almost industrial feel - at its closing moments, Sufjan screaming his lungs out can be heard deep in the mix, and further and further the descent goes. Ursa Major is multiple discordant properties held together by a yo-yo string, Landslide is literally composed of every single sound in the kitchen sink, Death Star and Goodbye To All Of That are literal exercises in claustrophobia. After 50 straight minutes of bombardment, the record intentionally begins to take its toll.
And you come out on the other side to Sugar, kind of dumb, simple pop song no. 2.
But after experiencing the heart of the record, that experience makes it nearly impossible for the listener to accept Sugar as that simple pop track on face value. There’s no way you hear “give me some sugar” and think that Sufjan is just asking for someone to kiss him, and that is it after hearing the six or so tracks before it. The song is far more subtly existential and desperate, and the concept of Sugar is far more symbolic. The track suddenly has an undercurrent that overtakes it nearly entirely.
And just like the preceding years have altered Sufjan’s perception of patriotism and religion so he can no longer accept them both plainly or at all, so within this very record seems to be the same dissolution and deconstruction of the pop song. A metaphor, so to speak, of the grand comforting concepts and their loss that this record tackles.
This isn’t a pop record. Not in any conventional sense. It’s not easy listening. It’s not all-together that enjoyable. It’s downright taxing. This is a record that uses pop as a weapon, assaulting you with all of its many clashing parts, until it’s no longer the same experience/entity as it was when you began the record.
Sufjan has been over-the-top for at least 14 years now, so what makes this experience so different? Well, there’s always been a sense of fun and play to Sufjan’s music. Age of Adz wasn’t such a revelatory experience because it was spastic electronic music; it was revelatory because it was spastic electronic music with a ***ing horn section (and string section, and flutes and xylophones, and backup singers, and obnoxious autotune and forceful sing-alongs, etc.) Tacking on a 26-minute song at the end of a record that had already lasted an hour is clearly abusive, but ***, have you ever heard a track so unpredictable or indulgent? I’ve never had more of a blast listening to music than I did the first time I heard to Impossible Soul. That’s a statement I can make about much of Sufjan’s music. From the 50 States Project to the Planetarium to the BQE. Even Carrie and Lowell blends folk and electronica in a bold and expressive way that’s just a touch light-hearted, and there’s none of that here. Age of Adz reveled in high fantasy, The Ascension is mostly just about Sufjan gobbling down anxiety pills. That’s legitimate. America is ***ed right now. It’s a long, cold, and barren record and rightfully so. I have long argued that Sufjan might be the greatest songwriter of our generation, and I don’t think the Ascension does anything to disprove that. The quality of songwriting is just as heartfelt and tuneful and ambitious as it has always been, and it’s wrapped in the ugliest, most panache gift wrap, as was intended.
It’s understandable, acceptable, forgivable, even expected for a record focused on disillusionment to make the listener feel disillusioned with the very music itself.
That feeling right there - that’s the protest.